Lawn care in nowhere

August 1, 2002 -  By

Todd Graus remembers the trip like it was yesterday. A person called and pleaded with him to come out and offer treatment advice for his lawn. “No one else will,” the man said. Graus hopped in his pickup truck, and, over the long journey, was reminded why he loves Wyoming so much. Not once did he see a single vehicle pass by. About 145 miles later he had himself a new client.

Message from God?

Let those who don’t believe that the odometer on Graus’s sixth-month-old truck now reads 33,000 miles be smacked upside the head. It’s easier to believe that Graus would never sleep a wink if he knew what his gas expenses were. He doesn’t. And that’s just fine with him.

Graus doesn’t take offense when someone asks, “Why in the @!$# would you start a lawn care business in Worland, Wyoming?” He can’t blame someone for asking that question: his territory is 9,000 square miles, and there are only 35,000 living souls inhabiting that territory. Judging by Graus’s reply, it’s true that God only knows.

“The Lord put us here,” Graus says. “I know without the Lord’s help I wouldn’t be here today. Jesus is my CEO. If he decides tomorrow that that’s the end of it, we’ll accept that and move on.”

So this is a blessing? To be put in the middle of nowhere and forced to eke out a 35 to 40 percent profit margin like big city lawn care companies, while being haunted by images of numbers on odometers and gasoline pumps spinning so fast they’re all a blur? Yes.

In the beginning

But Graus may not have believed that five years ago, when he started Green Turf Landscapes and worked from sunup to sundown every day. He’d sold a previous lawn care business in Grand Island, N.Y., in 1993 and gone back to school at the University of Colorado to finish work on a forest management degree. That’s where he met his wife, Holly, who is now his office manager. Once they had kids and moved to Worland (because of “the fishing,” he finally admitted, not some divine guidance from Heaven), he was going to do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant opening a lawn care business in an area that was truly a logistical nightmare.

It’s all the more amazing that Graus has managed to build his business to $800,000 in gross revenues. In fact, he’s had to guard against expanding his business too much. That’s right. Cue the laugh track.

“We’ve tried to keep a handle on growth so we don’t grow too fast,” Graus says. “Our biggest challenge is finding qualified help. Once I have someone good and get a commitment from them to stick around, we go the next step and grow.”

Growing in nowhere

Laugh all you want. Growth truly is a reality for Graus’s business, even in Worland. The reason, he says, is not because there’s no competition (there is), but that his business beats everyone hands down.

“There are lots of other companies in the area, but they haven’t had the professionalism I’ve had,” he says. “One big competitor tried to establish themselves here by offering free lawn care, and guess what? I didn’t lose one customer.”

The main reason Graus claims his business didn’t go down was that the “big competitor” used telemarketing to recruit business, and he says people in his area hate telemarketing.

“We don’t try to rip people off here,” Graus says. “In a big market, you might not know your customers. Here, everyone knows each other. The last thing you’d want to do is pull something over on somebody, because then everybody would know it.”

So, while the big competitor was rousted out of town, Graus opened a branch office in Cody. That move has lessened some of the logistical problems, as the Worland and Cody offices each cover a 50-mile radius. Over 120 miles from Worland, a new community is being built, and Graus is eyeing it as a potential new client base.

“Once we have enough customers to support an area, we’ll put an office there,” he says. “That’s my goal for the next three to four years.”

Before establishing the branch office in Cody, Graus and his employees would drive 90 miles every other day before they could put down one ounce of fertilizer. “Overtime was huge,” he says. “Guys were working 12-hour days, three or four hours of that being drive time.”

Holding the fort

With those type of expenses to manage, and the communication problems inherent in a place where employees can be hundreds of miles from the home office, it takes an excellent office staff to ensure each day goes by smoothly. Graus credits his wife, Holly, and Jennifer Herrmann, the administrative assistant, for making sure all employees know where they should be and what they should be doing. And the two women have become experts in what is a crucial step in the company’s customer service process: customer qualifying. The last thing Graus wants to do is travel 60 miles to someone’s house, only to find they want a water garden installed.

“Holly and Jennifer know how to lead a conversation to know what we’re looking for,” Graus says. “If a caller asks for a service we don’t provide, we don’t send someone.”

Green Turf’s finances are in good hands with Holly, who has an accounting degree. “She can normally anticipate cash flow problems about six weeks before they happen,” Graus says. Whether they decide to close certain expense accounts or tell employees to take special care of equipment, the employees accept the decision well because they have a vested interest in the profitability of the company.

“You want employees like that who look out for your interest,” Graus says. “I have some guys who will work for free on some afternoons because they don’t want to incur any additional expenses.”

Employee matters

There are two types of employees based on compensation: those who are paid hourly, and those, mostly crew leaders and managers, who are paid a salary plus a commission. Entry level lawn technicians make $8 an hour. Managers make $30,000 to $35,000 plus commission. For example, if a crew leader sells a five-point application program, he’ll earn a percentage of each application.

“We used to pay a percentage up front on the whole thing, but if the customer cancelled at the mid-way point of the program, the company would lose out,” Graus explains.

Bonuses, Graus says, are based on customer retention. If a customer renews the program at the end of the year, the employee will receive a percentage of that sale. “That gives employees an incentive to work well, and the customer is happy,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to get a customer, but it’s harder to keep them unless you fulfill all of your promises.”

Employees are sent off as two-man teams. Cue the laugh track again. It might seem to make more sense to spread your guys out individually to cover more ground, but Graus says his strategy pays off for more than one reason:

  • Less callbacks. “I’ve had two-man crews since 1984 because I realized that if we worked with crew members, we didn’t have callbacks.” Why? Because if there’s a callback, it reflects poorly on both persons.
  • Conversation. In Graus’s case, employees have to drive long distances. A person is much less likely to fall asleep at the wheel if he or she is engaged in conversation.
  • Accountability. Two people working together reduces the chance of someone merely fertilizing part of a yard or, worse, simply hanging an invoice on the doorknob after having done nothing at all.

The teams cover 18 to 20 communities, with every community being its own zone. All lawn applications are on a six-week rotation as part of an elaborate scheduling program. All applicators are cross-trained on various responsibilities, again for the purpose of making the logistical nightmare a little less scary.

“Guys who work on lawn care know about trees,” Graus says. “That way, if they’re in town and someone has a tree problem, they can go over there.”

Master of efficiency

You can hardly blame Graus for having so many checks and balances within his business that you’d think he was neurotic. Being in the middle of nowhere, he has had to make his business the ultimate model of efficiency. Any problems have to be anticipated early enough to allow his staff to turn them in to non-problems.

“We have efficiency reports and production reports so that we know when we’re off 1 to 2 percent on spraying or fertilizing,” he says.

Graus’s applicators check their production twice a day to make sure they’re not under- or over-applying fertilizer. Graus himself will randomly check lawns to make sure the square footage that was initially measured is correct.

As far as getting supplies goes, Graus says it’s as difficult as one might imagine living in an area of endless isolated towns. “There’s no such thing as next day delivery here,” he says. He picks up liquid material from a company 150 miles away – a company that itself delivers within a 300-mile radius. He also works frequently with LESCO, whose representatives, Graus says, understand his situation.

“I’ll call and ask to get fertilizer in four to five days, and they’ll often say, ‘Good luck,'” Graus says. “But that just means they have to work very hard on their end to get it done.”

Class is in session

Graus lives in what is known as the Bighorn Basin. The Bighorn Mountains are just to the east, and the Wind River is 40 to 50 miles south of Worland. Many years ago, a dam was built on the Wind River, and canal systems were built north of it, making the entire area fully irrigated. When that happened, Worland starting producing a ton of sugar beets and barley, which attracted major companies like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Coors to the area.

Because of prolonged drought conditions, the local reservoir fed by those old canals has only one year of water left in it. “We’re in a world of hurt,” Graus says. “If we don’t have a lot of snowfall, there will be lots of crops that won’t be grown.”

It’s no wonder then that Graus goes to painstaking lengths to teach his clients about proper watering practices. “I tell them to water heavily early in the season and create a lot of subsoil moisture. Then I tell them to shut the water off when the root system develops, which forces the roots to search for water and establish a root base. You’re giving grass what it wants at that point.”

Keeping the faith

Just as Graus is likely to offer clients advice on mowing and watering, so is he likely to speak his faith. He’s a deacon for his non-denominational, evangelical church, and his father is the pastor. Both place total belief in the Bible and prayer. And with the challenges his business faces every single day, a little prayer probably helps.

“Prayer gets us through every day,” Graus admits. “I was told that my competitors will make 15 percent more than me. That’s probably true, because 10 percent of our profits go to the church, where we support a lot of missions.”

Don’t expect Graus to move his family and company to a bigger and better market anytime soon. Worland will become a thriving metropolis before that happens. Like he says, “There are some things that are just more important than work.”

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